What Are the Barriers to Integrating Passive House into Architectural Practice?

What Are the Barriers to Integrating Passive House into Architectural Practice?

The images of the mausoleum represent my favorite project of my career. It is a funerary monument for my dear friend Jill Watson, who was killed on TWA Flight 800. There are no pipes, no wires, and no vents. There is not a lick of insulation. The place has only form, space, light, and meaning. This is why I chose architecture. I am not a technical nerd; technical concepts can be challenging for me. I’ve never been the one in the office who is the seeker of the best wall sections and details, although I appreciate them. What I do love is people and places. It is no surprise then that when I found out that the very people and places I love were being threatened by my own work, sustainability became a focus for me.

The Erosion of Our Profession

Passive House has been around in my region for over five years, and yet the adoption of it by other architects has been meager at best. I have been a bit baffled by this as I see Passive House as an antidote to some of the issues that architects frequently deal with and complain about. We view ourselves as undervalued. We have experienced fee erosion, and the expertise that we bring to projects is often overlooked or under appreciated. When an architect incorporates Passive House into the design, there are measurable “values” added to the project. These include reduced emissions, reduced utility costs, superior air-quality, near dust-free environments, reduced outside noise, draft-free spaces, increased market potential, and lower operating and maintenance costs. These are real and qualitative differences — tangible benefits that building owners and occupants care about. These benefits also meaningfully address environmental concerns, so it is a win-win…right?

I have been trying to figure out what the barriers to implementing Passive House into architectural practice are, and in talking to other architects I hear a variety of complaints. I hear that their clients have sustainability rating system fatigue. I hear that there is fear of not knowing enough building science. And I hear that there is no time to try yet another new thing that gets layered onto the decision-making for the building.

Marketing & Client Interaction

I have thought long and hard about the problem of rating systems being reserved for the special projects and clients who are willing to “take the plunge” with us. This is the opposite from what we want as a society. If we want sustainable practices to be rapidly adopted into all of our work, we need to use sustainable design principles on every project. We can incorporate the wisdom we have gained from the rating systems into our projects and have the design team prioritize them. Third party verification becomes optional. By incorporating sustainable practices into all our designs there is very little “selling” to the client that needs to be done.

Passive House has been demonstrated over many larger scale projects in the U.S. to have no cost differential except for some minor additional soft costs. Costs are transferred from a more robust MEP system to a more robust envelope. So, while cost is not the barrier to Passive House, the PERCEPTION of increased costs is a potential barrier, even as the evidence shows this simply isn’t true. Armed with this knowledge, I am suggesting that we change the way we market ourselves and our work. Instead of trying to get owners to sign-up for a Passive House project which can lead them to feeling like they are the guinea pigs, how about just integrating Passive House criteria and principles into our practice and not ask for permission? Our clients on the whole do not ask to vet our wall sections, or our technical methods…they expect that we should solve these problems and we should. We are the professionals after all. So instead of leading with “Want to try doing a Passive House?” let’s lead with “We care about the quality of our buildings so you may see some slight increase in our soft costs because we are focused on making more durable, more energy efficient, and healthier buildings than most of our competitors…” That is really all we need to say, and that is a powerful message.

Selecting a Consultant

In order to tackle the complexities of building science, hiring a consultant is a prudent move. Some architects take the PH training and after it is completed still don’t feel skilled enough to begin a Passive House project on their own. While I think having training in Passive House is an important skill that practitioners tackling PH projects should bring to the table, I don’t think it is advisable to try a large project with little to no experience in Passive House, without a consultant. There are now a number of highly trained PH consultants out there who can help guide the project through the process, and who can fully vet the performance and the building science for the project. In addition, in my opinion, an envelope consultant for existing buildings is a must for all renovation projects insulating from the inside. The nature of the consultant is really important in this process and selecting someone who will review drawings and construction processes, and who will also complete the energy modeling is a much safer bet than someone who simply takes performance measurements and does energy modeling. The cost of adding consultants to the team may feel daunting, but the measurable savings and the almost immediate payback makes this essentially a non-issue.

The Battle for the Envelope

There is a skirmish brewing on the horizon between MEP engineers and architects. Most architects are unaware that as we knock on the door of energy performance we are essentially eroding the fee potential for mechanical engineers. When building envelopes are robust enough to require huge reductions in the size of mechanical equipment it leaves the HVAC engineer with a greatly reduced slice of the pie. But the work of an engineer is well-suited to the realm of Passive House in buildings. Complex computer models and mathematical calculations are already the fabric of their everyday work. Not all architecture firms have the technical skills within their staff members to plunge headlong into Passive House. We have noticed a trend toward MEP professionals involving themselves in envelope design, an area traditionally reserved for architects. If architects allow themselves to be shut out of the critically important conversation of envelope performance, our fees and our scope will once again be eroded by engineers, who have the inclination toward the skill set required for the technical side of Passive House. How will this affect the ultimate look of buildings? Architects need to rapidly own the performance of the envelope in order to avoid further erosion of their perceived value on the project team. The envelope needs to be a well-choreographed element that unites performance, building science, and design. With the increasing pressure to meet 2030 targets being adopted by state and municipal governments, if Passive House principles are not brought into alignment and into the architect’s wheelhouse, we will lose control over the envelope. There is no way to meet the 2030 targets that does not involve the envelope; swapping out energy efficient lights and mechanical systems will not get us there.

Are Your Values in Line with Your Practice?

I have been in several recent presentations with architects who are all very concerned about climate change, and yet there are extremely few practitioners who are adopting Passive House into their practice. This is baffling to me. Throughout my life I have referred to this for inspiration:

If I am not for me…who will be? If I am not for others…what am I? If not now…when?


So, I beseech my fellow architects to ask themselves the following questions….

If it is not us who address these pressing societal issues through construction…then who will it be?

If we fall prey to fear and do not implement Passive House into our practice for others…what are we?

Isn’t now the time… when we need it most?

I believe that the benefits of Passive House are measurable and significant. They will lead to our profession being more highly valued, and will regain some of the ground that we have lost. The benefits can wildly outpace the risks. It is only our fear that stands in the way.

Author: Laura Nettleton